The 2017 season proved a revolutionary year for the TCR International Series as a flourish of new manufacturers and cars, a growing list of star drivers and a plethora of immense on-track action marked the series out as one of the most enticing products in the motorsport industry.
Amongst several deserving candidates, it was Jean-Karl Vernay (Leopard WRT Racing) who triumphed in a close battle with the equally impressive sophomore Attila Tassi as a consistent performance throughout the year allowed him to steal the title with a race to spare, deposing twice-champion Stefano Comini (Comtoyou Racing).
Tassi’s performances would not go completely unrewarded however as he, team-mate Roberto Colciago and their team M1RA were able to reconcile with glory in the Teams’ Championship.
Their points contributions were also nearly enough to assist Honda to the ‘Model of the year’ title, however the Volkswagen Golf GTI, led by the likes of Vernay and Rob Huff, would narrowly edge out the Japanese manufacturer by 5 points in the final standings.
Despite only contesting the final two rounds, the paddocks attention will instead be firmly set on Hyundai heading into 2018. After their frighteningly dominant “win” on their debut in Zhejiang, further impressive performances in the TCR Europe Trophy and Dubai season finale have cemented their i30 N TCR as one of the cars to have.
A cool head and a worthy contender
Jean-Karl Vernay had never participated in a touring car race when he joined the series last year despite a CV littered with success in a variety of single-seater and GT championships, yet he proved his adaptability with a level-headed performance which saw him third in the final standings last year.
A seasons worth of experience proved important for Vernay who looked in control of the situation from the first round in Georgia. From the first 4 rounds, he had finished no lower than sixth with a win and 2 thirds lifting him 25 points clear of his nearest rivals.
The fifth round at the Salzburgring proved Vernay’s low-point when a puncture at the crash-heavy Ostchleife corner, which had claimed Tassi, Ferenc Ficza and team-mate Rob Huff earlier in the weekend, put him out of both races leaving him pointless and dropping out of the championship lead.
He would however pick himself up and, when Tassi’s title challenge began to mount at the Hungaroring where he scored 2 home wins, he continued to score useful points week in, week out.
In the four rounds proceeding the Salzburgring, Vernay recorded another win, 3 more podiums and 3 further points finishes, missing out on points only at the first Oschersleben race after contact with Tassi.
Also in impressive qualifying form, he made full use of the points awarded to the top 5 qualifiers. The Frenchman managed a total of 18 points from qualifying, Tassi his nearest rival on 13 points.
This left Vernay 21 points clear of Tassi heading into the final round in Dubai and, with a third in race 1 compared to Tassi’s fifth, it was enough to allow him to secure the title with a race to spare.
His metronomic performance will have been assisted by his single-seater and endurance experience, and with that he has also managed to conquer a further discipline in touring cars.
Tassi, at 18 years of age and in only his third year of top level motorsport, will undoubtedly be proud of his 2017 campaign nonetheless proving himself a worthy contender to Vernay.
Following a positive acclimatisation year in 2016 when he finished eleventh with a single podium, Tassi grew massively this year with 2 wins and 5 further podiums, marking himself out as a one of the top touring car drivers.
Luck was not particularly favourable however to the Hungarian who was forced to change his car after a monumental accident at the Salzburgring destroyed his Honda. The Hungarian was also on the wrong end of a few collisions, including the aforementioned incident between himself and Vernay.
With Hungarian touring car hero Norbert Michelisz behind him, he will be in the right hands to make positive use of his 2017 season for another attack at the title in 2018.
A disappointed ex-champion
Whilst Vernay looked strong in the early rounds, it was Comini who was running the show as the series left the Salzburgring. After a relatively disappointing first two rounds which culminated in only a third, eighth and ninth, a run of 2 wins and 3 podiums followed, elevating him into the championship lead.
He wasn’t able to maintain his run and, although still in the title fight by the final round in Dubai, the second half of the season was a comparative disappointment.
He only scored points with a tenth at the Hungaroring, before an improved run with sixth and fifth in the attrition hit Oschersleben races and a seventh and third in Thailand.
The proceeding meeting at Zhejiang was a disaster, however, with Comini blaming the Balance of Performance for his and team-mate Frederic Vervisch‘s lack of pace. A thirteenth and a retirement essentially ended any hopes of a third consecutive title.
A win in the final race in Dubai offered Comini a positive close to the season, finishing third overall, yet he will be upset to lose the TCR title for the first time in its history.
Now with a years knowledge of the Audi RS3 LMS and with development ongoing on the car with Audi Sport, Comini will be another one to watch heading into 2018.
Italian touring car veterans Gianni Morbidelli and Roberto Colciago looked unmatchable at points throughout the season and they will be disappointed in not being able to challenge for the title.
Swapping from the Honda Civic after two years, West Coast Racing had trouble adapting to their new Volkswagen Golfs with both Morbidelli and his rookie team-mate Giacomo Altoe struggling for results.
Until scoring a fifth the second race at the Salzburgring (the tenth of the season), Morbidelli had only managed a best result of a seventh and a ninth in unexpectedly poor form. He must have felt no luck would fall his way after a ninth and a retirement in Hungary.
Then, at Oschersleben, he finally found pace in his stubborn Golf claiming victory in both races, providing a turning point for the Italian as he scored 3 further podiums. Although too late to make an impact, the results allowed him to move up to a final position of sixth.
Colciago meanwhile scored a second and 3 victories in the first half of the season and, alongside Comini, would be the most successful pilot in terms of wins. Yet the Italian would ‘only’ wind up fifth in the standings, 61 points off of Vernay.
His season was heavily impacted when he caused a pile-up at the start of race 2 at Oschersleben which left the Italian injured thus forcing him out of the proceeding Buriram round. Colciago would also fail to score points at the Spa, Oschersleben and Dubai rounds, oddly falling off-pace and thus leaving him outside the points-scoring top 10.
Regardless, given he only scored in 6 of the 10 rounds, it was perhaps impressive that he was still theoretically able to win the title heading into the final round, even if the task was somewhat impossible. With more luck, Colciago could have been an even greater threat and should he return in 2018 may find a more consistent footing.
Another name frequenting the top of the standings throughout the year was Pepe Oriola and, as he has been throughout the previous TCR seasons, was firmly in the title hunt up until a disastrous pair of rounds at Oschersleben and Buriram.
Having scored a solitary win in the opening round in Georgia, Oriola had a run of strong points positions ending with a second place in the second Hungaroring race. Then followed four nightmarish races at the aforementioned German and Thai rounds.
At Oschersleben, a drive through penalty in and his innocent involvement in the race 2 start pile-up scuppered any chance of points, whilst gearbox failure from second on the last lap of race 1 in Buriram ruined his weekend in Thailand, Craft-Bamboo unable to resolve the problem for race 2.
A pair of fifths and a win in the final 2 rounds allowed him to jump up to fourth, however Oriola knows had he not had his troubles in Buriram and Oschersleben, he would have been amongst the serious favourites for the title heading into Dubai.
After a challenging learning year in 2016, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta showed great improvement. It would take its first pole and win in the opening race in Georgia at the hands of Davit Kajaia (GE-Force), also scoring his first win in the series on home soil.
Dusan Borkovic soon proved the win was no fluke scoring wins in Bahrain and Austria, running in the top 5 in the standings following a string of consistent points finishes. However, in typical Alfa Romeo fashion, reliability issues soon set in and results fell away for both drivers.
A late season surge from both drivers saw them climb to eighth and twelfth, Borkovic from Kajaia, although they may have hoped for better results given the potential proved by their earlier performances.
Nonetheless, they have shown that the Alfa has the potential to consistently compete with the Honda and the VAG manufactured cars, something which no other make has managed so far. Opel briefly looked strong at points, although the make seemed to struggle with harsh Balance of Performance adjustments and poor luck – the car claimed 2 pole positions, but was unable to convert them into more.
The season also featured a variety of guest stars, some becoming permanent fixtures. Rob Huff joined WRT full-time from the Spa round, assisting Vernay’s title bid, and ended his year in Zhejiang with a win, the Brit missing the finale in Dubai due to commitments in the Macau WTCC race.
Norbert Michelisz, entering two events for his self-run team M1RA, would take a second at home in Hungary before claiming victory in Oschersleben. Also starring was Tom Coronel, Gordon Shedden, and Josh Files, the latter two claiming a second and third respectively in a one-off outing in Dubai.
Aurelien Panis was perhaps the most surprising race-winner of the season, taking victory from reverse-grid pole in the second Buriram race, his only other point coming from a tenth in race 1 in China.
His win came in front of Giacomo Altoe, who leaves his debut season with possibly more TCR experience than any other driver – the young 18 year old competed in 36 different TCR races this year across the International, Benelux, European, Italian and Middle East series.
2018 – A new era of touring cars
Talks had been ongoing for months before the announcement was formally made, however it had only become evermore evident that the TCR regulations would soon replace the recalcitrant TC1 regulations.
The TCR International Series will essentially under-go a rebranding to the WTCR and will receive full FIA endorsement in 2018, merging with the old World Touring Car Championship.
The series will officially become the ‘World Touring Car Cup’, losing its World Championship status due to the prohibition of fully fledged factory entries.
Rules surrounding manufacture support have however been loosened, although this is no more than a formality as both VAG and JAS representatives and mechanics have been common to the TCR paddocks for some time.
The 9-round announced calendar largely consists of the 2017 WTCC venues, starting in Morocco and ending in Macau, with a race scheduled in Zandvoort alongside the TCR Europe and Benelux Series. A further round is expected to be announced in the near future, increasing the final calendar to 10 rounds and 30 races.
It would seem likely that the front-running Honda’s will again be run by Michelisz’ M1RA squad, the team recently testing the new 2018 Civic TCR car in Italy at the end of 2017.
Meanwhile, both Craft-Bamboo and Comtoyou Racing have formally announced their intentions to compete in 2018. Comtoyou Racing will return with their Audi RS3 LMSs with plans to enter 3 cars. Craft-Bamboo have also signaled their intentions to continue, although they have previously hinted at a move away from the SEAT Leon which they have campaigned since the debut 2015 season.
Of the existing WTCC teams, ROAL Motorsport have previously been linked with a move to TCR, whilst Campos Racing and Zengo Motorsport have both previously competed in the TCR International Series.
Sebastien Loeb Racing could also remain in the series with the arrival of Peugeot’s 308 TCR an option, Sebastien Loeb himself employed by the Groupe PSA brands (Peugeot and Citroen). Rumours have also suggested Lada could be aiming to utilise their TCR car, currently only eligible in the TCR Russia series.
The entry list will be capped to 26 cars with teams required to run at least 2 cars, although 2 further wildcards will be permitted per race.
It will be a much changed look to the series for 2018, although with it comes a deserving boost in prestige. With increased entry costs and a limited capacity grid, the entry list will undoubtedly consist of some of the strongest touring car teams and drivers.